Why Republicans Keep Spreading the ‘87,000 IRS Agents’ Lie

6 minute read

As thousands of conservative activists descended on the Washington, DC, area this week for the Conservative Political Action Conference, one of the confab’s first breakout sessions was titled “87,000 Pink Slips,” a reference to President Joe Biden hiring 87,000 new IRS agents. Other speakers, including Florida Sen. Rick Scott, took aim at the same target.

While Republicans continue to hammer the claim, there’s one significant problem: it’s patently untrue.

More than six months after GOP lawmakers and conservative influencers first started spreading the “87,000 agents” falsehood, it remains a resonant talking point in Republican circles. The Thursday CPAC session was headlined by Representative Jason Smith, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who, like many of his fellow Republicans, has spread the fiction that the $80 billion in funding for the Internal Revenue Service included in the Inflation Reduction Act that Biden signed last August will go exclusively toward additional auditors. Through his congressional office, Smith declined to comment for this story.

It’s a subject that lawmakers and activists are likely to continue to push toward right-wing audiences, especially in the run-up to tax-filing season. But it’s more than just a way to attack Democrats and whip up a crowd of MAGA diehards. Over the last several months—since the debunked claim began circulating on the right—it has been grist for Republican fundraising.

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Throughout the fall, for instance, Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker sent multiple fundraising emails promising to vote to repeal the fictitious 87,000 new IRS agents if he were elected. (He lost.) In September, Nikki Haley, now a GOP presidential candidate, emailed Walker’s supporters asking for donations by appealing to the same sense of grievance over the IRS funding. “Senator Warnock, votes 96% of the time with Biden, including for open borders, less energy independence, 87,000 new IRS agents, and higher taxes,” she wrote.

Even after the midterm elections, Republicans have continued to raise money by spreading the false claim. In January, the Republican National Committee blasted out a fundraising email asking for contributions to help rid the country of more IRS auditors. “The new Republican House Majority is already working hard to keep promises made to the American People starting with voting to repeal funding for Biden’s 87,000 IRS agents,” the email said.

The missive came shortly after House Republicans, in one of their first legislative moves after taking a slim majority, voted to rescind the $80 billion in funding allocated to the IRS. The bill has no chance of passing in the Senate, which remains under Democratic control, but members of the GOP conference have rallied around the move.

In February, the freshman Rep. Eli Crane of Arizona sent out a fundraising email that highlighted the vote and suggested the Biden administration’s plans to beef up the IRS were now on hold. “We’ve already accomplished so much in this Congress, including suspending outlandish funding for 87,000 IRS agents,” Crane said.

Some of the Trump-era GOP’s critics say the pattern speaks to a larger trend in the movement. “They don’t care about the truth,” says Reed Galen, a former Republican operative and Treasury Department official who co-founded the NeverTrump group The Lincoln Project. “The GOP is a post-truth party. The Republican Party is now white plutocrats and white populists. Plutocrats hate taxes. Populists don’t like taxes either. but they don’t like the government at all. They see the IRS as just one of those arms that can literally reach out and grab you.”

Since the Inflation Reduction Act’s passage and implementation, the IRS has indeed been expanding—but not in the way Republicans are asserting.

Since the fall, the IRS has hired 5,000 customer service agents to assist Americans throughout tax season, upgraded its phone and online chat features, and fully staffed 361 Taxpayer Assistance Centers around the nation, a Treasury Department official tells TIME.

But that hasn’t stopped the conspiracy theories. The 87,000 new IRS agents claim appears to emanate from a May 2021 Treasury Department report that said such an investment is estimated to enable the agency to hire roughly 87,000 employees by 2031. But most of those wouldn’t be agents or necessarily even new positions. The increased funding was designed to cover a range of positions, including IT technicians and taxpayer services support staff, as well as experienced auditors who would be largely tasked with cracking down on corporate and high-income tax evaders.

Meanwhile, more than half of the agency’s current employees are eligible for retirement and are expected to leave the agency within the next five years. That means the IRS might net roughly 20,000 to 30,000 more employees from the new funding, enough to restore the tax-collecting agency’s staff to where it was roughly a decade ago.

In 2010, after Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, they enacted a series of cuts to the agency. Since then, overall funding to the IRS has dropped by more than 20 percent while enforcement has fallen by 31 percent. That has led to a decline in the agency’s service for average Americans, while also making it easier for both the wealthy and major corporations to avoid paying billions of dollars worth of federal taxes.

GOP officials have railed against the IRS and the Democratic push for more funding in part by emphasizing past allegations of misconduct against the tax-collecting agency over its aggressive scrutiny of right-wing organizations. In 2017, the Trump Justice Department reached a settlement with conservative groups that said they were unfairly targeted by the IRS because of their political leanings.

Yet there are few signs that Republicans intend to relent on the misleading claim of Biden hiring 87,000 new IRS agents any time soon. Republican insiders say that it’s expected to be a recurring theme at this weekend’s CPAC conference and beyond.

“You only sort of lean in on lies that are useful,” adds Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. “And in this case, I doubt they’d keep saying it if it wasn’t enabling them to either raise more money or garner more support.”

—With reporting by Molly Ball

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